Wineskins Archive

January 28, 2014

Introduction to Divorce and Remarriage by Rubel Shelly (May-Jun 2007)

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by Rubel Shelly
May – June, 2007

Rubel Shelly says what some don’t want to hear: divorce is awful. And, he says what everyone needs to hear: divorce is not the unforgivable sin. But like nails on a chalkboard to modern Pharisees, he says divorce can preserve the life of an abused spouse or family member.

Rubel is one of the three original editors of Wineskins Magazine. He still occasionally writes for the magazine, and we’re honored to excerpt part of the introduction from his new book, Divorce and Remarriage: A Redemptive Theology.

The book combines Rubel’s thirty years of ministry experience, great discernment with biblical theology from the Old Testament, Jesus, and Paul. The case studies in each chapter are stunning and powerfully told. They illustrate that divorce has vined up every family tree today. But there is hope.

We believe you can begin to see, from this excerpt, that this book helps get to the root of the vine without killing the tree.

Divorce and Remarriage: A Redemptive Theology
Copyright 2007 by Rubel Shelly
Leafwood Publishers
ISBN 978-0-89112-519-8

an excerpt from the introduction

Divorce and Remarriage is not a book I ever wanted to write.

Divorce is not a good thing. It disrupts the lives of people who got married with the full and serious intention of living together until death separated them. (Granted, there are probably lots of people who get married these days with intentions far less serious. But few of those people will ever care to read a book such as this one.) Worse still, it disrupts the lives of children born to those people. (I have officiated a number of weddings where the most tension-filled part of the preparation was worry over the participation, seating, and possible interactions of long-divorced, still-bitter parents of bride and/or groom.) And this doesn’t begin to take into account the pain and chaos brought into the lives of the extended family of the people involved.

Jared and Megan had been married for less than three weeks, and Megan began acting strangely. She was quiet and withdrawn. Something was going on. And Jared was determined to find out what he could do for his young wife. He loved her devotedly.

For the first few days, he simply tried to be especially attentive and gentle.

But nothing changed for the better. Megan, in Jared’s words, seemed “distracted” and often seemed to have a “faraway look in her eyes.” He thought about asking Megan’s mother to intervene. He immediately thought better of it. “We are married now,” he said to himself, “and we have to learn to deal with our challenges and problems ourselves.” He set a time to talk with her. He prayed and fasted for a full day before doing so, for he was a devout and sincere man. And he believed that her faith was every bit as genuine as his own. One of the things that had drawn him to her was her sincere piety. Their courtship had reflected the spiritual commitments both of them embraced. There had been no sexual experimentation during their courtship. Jared had counted himself to be among a fortunate minority of men to come to his own wedding a virgin and to have a chaste woman with whom to begin a life of devotion.

“I need to talk with you, Megan,” he began. “I want you to be happy. I am doing my best to learn how to be a loving husband to you. But I am worried. You seem so distant. Or maybe that’s not the right word. Perhaps I should say ‘distracted’ or ‘preoccupied.’ Whatever the correct term, I need you to trust me enough to talk to me about what is going on. If it’s something I’ve done—or failed to do—all you have to do is name it. I promise . . .”

“It’s not you, Jared,” she interrupted. “I’m pregnant. The doctor says I’m three and a half months along. And you can do the math, can’t you? This isn’t your baby.”

She said more, but Jared didn’t really hear any of it. He was more astonished than angry. Yet he was angry. He had been wrong about this woman. He had been deceived by her, betrayed by her, played for a fool by her. He would see a lawyer the very next day and start the divorce proceedings, but he knew his life would never be the same. And his mother had doted on Megan. He didn’t know how to clean up such a mess. He just knew he couldn’t make a life with Megan. He would be civil and respectful in all the legal papers. “Irreconcilable differences” would be all the courts or he would ever specify for the divorce. He had no desire to destroy Megan, just to be done with this—as quickly and quietly as possible.

There was no way for this to be “painless” for anybody involved. He prayed for hours that night for God to show him a way to get through this unexpected, uninvited ordeal.

Suppose Jared came to you for advice? What would you suggest he do about his dilemma? What would this information do to your opinion of Megan?

The studies done by sociologists, psychologists, and others who research the impact of divorce confirm that divorce is not a good thing. People who divorce once tend to divorce again. The children of people who divorce each other are statistically more likely to get divorced as adults. The children who suffer through the divorce of their parents not only are more likely to divorce someday as adults but are also more likely to do poorly in school, have run-ins with the law, and otherwise struggle to become well-adjusted adults.

So let me say it again—with emphasis. Divorce is not a good thing! Anyone who picks up this book looking to find a justification for bailing out of a marriage in trouble should put it down right now. Instead of reading a book about divorce and remarriage, she should go to someone who can help her sort out ways and means for trying to save the relationship.

Go to a godly minister of the gospel of Jesus for help. Seek out an experienced Christian counselor. Talk with a mature couple you know whose marriage has lasted for at least 20 years in the face of some real problems—the death of a child, serious illness, or jail time by a family member.

Someone in your network of friends and acquaintances can help you get perspective on what you are going through. Somebody can help you exhaust a long list of possibilities you need to explore before you throw in the towel and file for a divorce. You cannot imagine today the problems you will create for all your tomorrows by getting divorced. You will be alienated not only from a former spouse but from a host of people more closely linked to your mate than to you. The financial repercussions will be horrible. And there will be agonizing times of guilt, compounded by a sense of self-doubt. Even if you are the aggrieved party, you will ask yourself a thousand times if you “drove him to it” or should have seen and reacted to the brewing storm that broke over your marriage.

Ellen lived in a small town. There were no mental health cooperatives. There certainly weren’t any Christian counseling centers. If there had been anything of the sort, she would have gone in a heartbeat. She did talk to her physician. And he seemed to be appropriately and genuinely concerned. He offered to prescribe an anti-depressant medication. Beyond that, he encouraged her to “get some help. ”Her husband had been the “sweetest man I ever met” during their courtship. There had been some sexual activity in the final few months of their engagement, but they ended it about a month before their wedding day. They were both Christians, and they had felt terrible about their sexual liberties—the first sexual experience for either of them. But they hadn’t been married three months before he hit her for the first time. It was only the beginning of more beatings than she could count. That was nine years and two children ago! He was always tearful and apologetic afterwards. There were always flowers and gifts. But there were always more blows to come.

He hit their seven-year-old daughter hard enough last week that he ruptured her left eardrum. Ellen was at her parents’ home when she called the preacher for their little church. He encouraged her to come home, give her husband another chance, and “pray real hard for things to work out” for them. He said he was sorry to hear “Ellen’s account” of what had been going on. “But I’ve learned there are always two sides to these things,” he said. “You need to go back home and work things out. Even if what you are telling me is true, you don’t have scriptural justification for a divorce. You’re making yourself look bad by leaving town and going to your parents. Are you sure you aren’t involved with anybody, Ellen? Are you just looking for a way out of your marriage?”

Ellen had always been taught that divorce is sinful, unless your mate has been sexually unfaithful to you. She didn’t believe for a minute that her abusive husband had committed adultery or that he ever would. He just had this horrible temper. “He may be ‘hard as nails,’ Ellen,” her preacher’s words echoed in her head, “but you’ve got no right to divorce him unless you know for a fact that he has been unfaithful to you.”

What would you have advised Ellen, if she had called you instead of the preacher that day?

Divorce is not a good thing. But is it worse than spousal abuse? It seldom answers questions or fixes things. For Ellen, though, a divorce might have protected her and her two children from additional physical abuse. It would not have “saved her good name” in the little town where she had lived. It would not have explained her actions to the church people she loved. And it certainly would not have provided financial security for her and her children.

Ellen made three reconciliation attempts with her husband. In the meanwhile, he had maneuvered himself into the confidence of the minister Ellen had called in her first cry for help. The abusive husband convinced him that, although he had “a bit of a temper,” he had never hit Ellen. He had certainly not hit their daughter. And Ellen was prone to be a “drama queen” in describing things anyway.

By the time Ellen was divorced two years later, it was her husband who had made the initial court filing. He accused Ellen of being an unfit mother—and cited her use of anti-depressant medication as part of his proof.

He has primary custody of the children now, and Ellen sees them every other weekend. By the way, the church where Ellen and her husband had been members since their marriage disfellowshipped her for being the cause of her family’s breakup. She is being treated for severe clinical depression. In a recent letter to Ellen, her former husband told her he hoped she would “find somebody and get married soon” so he could get on with his life and marry the woman he had been dating for the past couple of months.

For the little church that had already excised Ellen’s name from its church directory, her decision to marry again would be adultery. She would become the “guilty party” to the former marriage. And her husband would be declared the corresponding “innocent party”—with the right to remarry with the blessing of the church.

Divorce is not a good thing. But when a theological system creates situations where Ellens are first physically abused by their mates and then manipulated, set up, and psychically-spiritually abused, something is definitely not good at still another level. And Ellen’s church is now part of the abuse she is suffering. It is pouring salt into the open wound of her broken heart. For all the harm done in the world by people failing to keep their vows of marriage and running to the divorce courts without exhausting all the options for saving their families, there is also incredible harm being done to people by both Catholic and Protestant interpretations of Scripture that turn divorce into something that looks more like gamesmanship than spiritual insight or godly nurture for the battered and broken.

For example, many Protestants have long had a field day with the Roman Catholic option for dealing with failed marriages. Under a system that presumably allows no divorce, a person with enough money and connections can get his or her marriage annulled. So a person married for 37 years and who has two grown and married children—perhaps even a grandchild or two—can be declared never to have been married at all!

With the proscription against divorce circumvented, he may then be married by a priest and receive the Eucharist from which he and his bride would otherwise have been excluded. And the person with whom the first “real” marriage is covenanted may be the sixth or eighth person with whom he is known to have had an affair while married to the person who is the mother of his children! What is wrong with this picture?

If Protestant practices were as generally known, Catholics could have an equal sense of outrage at how we handle divorce and remarriage. Churches that permit divorce (with the right of remarriage) only to those who have divorced a mate who has broken the bond of sexual exclusivity by an act of adultery sometimes create absurdities every bit as bizarre as those involving Roman Catholic annulments. Thus a woman is belittled and bullied by a man for years. He is stingy not only with money but even more with affection and affirmation. He forces her to participate in offensive and painful sexual behaviors, all the while telling her how inadequate she is. He tells her repeatedly that she is nothing but a whore to him and that he must have married her in a period of temporary insanity.

But if she were ever to meet someone who treated her with kindness and have even one sexual tryst with him, she could be divorced with no right ever to remarry. And the cruel man who put her in that situation could be declared an “innocent party” who could marry again, serve in the church’s ministries, and—in most cases—be ordained! What is wrong with this picture?

David came into the preacher’s office, almost literally dragging his wife with him. The couple had attended his church several times but were not members. He knew the man’s parents from a decade or more ago. They were sincere Christians with little formal education, but they had been pillars in their church. David and his brother had been given advantages their parents had never known.
“Tell him what you’ve done!” David began, not even seated yet. “You tell him right now!”
The first order of business was for the preacher to get the angry, badgering man to calm down. He talked to David and his wife in the most general of terms to affirm his desire to help them. He wanted them to know that the whole church would try to befriend and assist. “But let’s try to talk about this calmly,” he pleaded. Speaking first to the sobbing wife and then to the red-faced husband, he asked permission to pray for God’s Spirit to fill the place and guide the conversation.

“Now you tell him what you’ve done!” said David, as soon as an amen was said to the brief prayer. “Tell him that you committed adultery. Tell him that you have slept with that man three times!”

“Yes!” she sobbed. “Yes! I did! But you made me do it, David.”

The preacher assumed he was in for a story of how a young husband’s neglect had driven his wife into someone else’s arms. Hardly! David had brought a friend into their apartment, ordered his wife to undress, and gave the man permission to have sex with her. He sat in a chair beside the bed and watched. He had repeated the scenario with the same man three times over a two-week period.

She told of the three events, and David confirmed them. When asked why he would do such a thing, he explained that he knew within six months of their wedding that he had made a mistake. Since the only way he would ever be free to divorce his wife and remarry was if his wife were to be (unquestionably!) guilty of adultery, he saw to it himself that the deed was done—three times in his immediate presence.

Put your reaction to this scenario into words before reading further. Did the woman’s sex with a third party make her an adulteress? Did it set David free to remarry?

Divorce is not a good thing. But might it not be justified as an escape from someone who is mentally ill? Whether it is a divorce that takes place in a marriage that might have been saved with appropriate resources early on or one that is manipulated for the sake of appearances and status or one that happens because one of the partners is seriously mentally ill, there simply isn’t a “good” one. So I understand why the God of Israel would say, “I hate divorce!” So do I. And so do most of the people I know who have gone through one. But simply saying that divorce is not a good thing is simplistic and does not take harsh and painful realities into account.

Saying that divorce is not a good thing is not to say that some good people haven’t been divorced. It isn’t even to say that there are no circumstances under which one is justified in getting divorced. Neither does it mean that somebody who gets a divorce for less-than-noble reasons is to be penalized for the rest of her life for quitting too soon or for having an affair. With the God who has revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth, repentance leads to real pardon and the opportunity to move on with one’s life.

Sometimes the emotional and spiritual mess is akin to scrambled eggs—eggs that can’t be un-scrambled now. But there can be forgiveness and insight from past mistakes, and there can be normalcy in a new life. One can still marry and have a family. God deals with people redemptively. God’s people need to do the same.

People who respect Scripture must be convinced we have biblical warrant for what we do. Is there biblical precedent for divorced persons being permitted to move ahead with their lives after serious marital failure? Is there any way to speak with the authority of God in telling a divorcee that he can marry again after a divorce when he was the one who had an affair?

Is it right for a church to accept someone into membership who has been divorced and remarried? Or must its leaders investigate the circumstances of that divorce and be convinced that her first marriage ended by no fault of her own? Is it ever acceptable for a person in his second (or later) marriage to be ordained a deacon, pastor, or minister of the gospel?

I have never wanted to write a book whose task is to engage questions this serious and controversial. But I feel both called and compelled to do so for a variety of reasons too complex to give here. My hope in daring to embrace the task is to help some people who have been confused, angered, and alienated by burdens some of us have imposed on them by our mishandling of the Word of God. I would like for this book to be God’s instrument for giving guidance and peace to troubled hearts. I pray for God to use it to speak both pardon and hope to some who have felt neither for a long time.

This book has been kept relatively brief and is written in pastoral tones. In the bibliography, there are references to a few scholarly works of history and exegesis on which my conclusions are based. But this book is not an attempt to summarize all that material and explain how it justifies certain positions. It is simpler and more practical. Its goal is to comfort, teach, and guide hurting souls.

This book is also a theological treatment of divorce and remarriage for the sake of church leaders. It is intended to explain that divorce is as “bad” as an adult committing murder and as “innocent” as a youth uttering a swear word when frightened. All are offensive to God, yet all may be pardoned by his grace on the merit of Jesus’ death and resurrection. All are sinful and must be abandoned, but nothing is beyond forgiveness when confessed and offered to God. All these actions are indefensible and are never to be taken lightly, yet one who has been guilty of one or more of them must not allow Satan to use the now-pardoned past to rob her of full absolution and the right to live for the future.

A poor method of reading Scripture coupled with a lack of theological reflection has caused some people to believe sincerely that divorce is a sin worse than all others. Thus a person who quit trying in a marriage or one who destroyed a marriage by having an affair has been judged guilty of a sin for which there could be forgiveness but for which there was a lifelong punishment. Repentance could bring forgiveness, but it could not bring the option of a subsequent marriage. I once believed and taught this very thing, but I no longer think such a view represents either the heart or words of God as revealed in Holy Scripture.New Wineskins

Rubel ShellyRubel Shelly preached for the Family of God at Woodmont Hills in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1978-2005. During that time he also taught at Lipscomb University and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He holds a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, and is the author or co-author of many books, including The Jesus Community: A Theology of Relational Faith and The Second Incarnation. He presently lives in the Greater Detroit area where he teaches philosophy and religion at Rochester College. []


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